(Larry Crowe ~ Associated Press)
It's a question many revelers may be asking this year as the holiday party season coincides with an anxiety-provoking flu season.
The good news: While it is true that mingling over punch and canapes can help spread the H1N1 virus, health and entertaining experts say it's possible to throw a holiday party without making everyone wear surgical masks and hazmat suits.
It's a question of managing risk.
"Party. Party cautiously," advises Dr. Stephen Morse, professor of epidemiology at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. That means keep things clean, be careful with finger food, forget the punch bowl and maybe even reconsider the mistletoe.
"Just like we say with terrorists, you really don't want to let the flu win," said Dr. Shira Doron, an infectious disease physician at Tufts Medical Center in Boston.
Swine flu is spread mainly through coughing or sneezing, though people also can be infected by touching something with flu viruses on it and then touching their mouth or nose. Basic common-sense rules apply for parties.
"Stay home and [stay] away if you are sick with fever and other symptoms," said Jane Wernsman, assistant director of Cape Girardeau County Public Health Center in an e-mail. "If you are sick, don't have people come to your home. This is good practice no matter what strain of influenza is circulating."
There are some easy ways to keep germs from mingling: keep your hands clean, cough and sneeze into your elbow and take steps to make sure guests do the same. Party planners suggest placing bottles of hand sanitizer and tissues in plain view to send a subtle signal.
"Obviously, the nature of parties is all about mixing and mingling, and that's about the opposite of what people tell you to do as far as the flu season," said Jennifer Sbranti, founder and editor in chief of hostesswiththemostess.com. "But it's really all about taking some precautions."
Wernsman said the food table doubles as the germ center.
For party food, think single servings. Avoid offering chips, candies, nuts or any food in big, open bowls that people could reach their potentially contaminated hands into.
"A hand going into a bowl is not a good thing," Doron said.
Instead, consider serving individual portions of hors d'oeuvres such as peanuts or cheese cubes on little pleated paper cups or small appetizer plates, said Denise Vivaldo, author of "The Entertaining Encyclopedia: Essential Tips for Hosting the Perfect Party."
Sbranti suggests serving crudite in little glass votive candle holders, salads in tiny Chinese food-style takeout containers or even french fries in paper snow cone cups. Culinarymedianetwork.com CEO Jennifer Iannolo said soup can be served in espresso cups and desserts in ramekins.
"I would recommend having fun with it," she said.
Covered food is better. Sbranti said hosts might want to plate and serve the food instead of laying out a buffet.
If you do venture the buffet way, Wernsman suggests keeping close tabs on the dishes sitting out. She said to keep hot food in the oven or cold food in the refrigerator until serving time. "This way foods will be held at safe temperatures for a longer time. Food should not sit at room temperature for more than two hours."
Either way, consider leaving the punch bowl in the china closet. Dipping used cups into a communal bowl is never a great idea, flu season or no. Ladles lessen risk, but punch bowls still offer a large surface area for germs to land on.
Doron suggests serving drinks from narrow-necked bottles. Sbranti recommends beverage dispensers with lids and side spouts.
Make sure your guests can keep track of their drink glasses. Party supply stores offer everything from wine charms that hook around glass stems to stretchable colored bands that fit around beer bottles.
"Don't drink or eat after someone," Wernsman said. "Don't use the same glass or utensils."
Features editor Chris Harris contributed to this report.
Registered nurse Gayla Tripp, infection control coordinator at Saint Francis Medical Center, responded to questions from the Southeast Missourian's health community e-mail.
How worried should people be about throwing a holiday party and spreading sicknesses like the flu and H1N1?
I wouldn't be too worried as long as those who are sick keep their distance. Many travel from far away for the holidays and may be bringing infectious illnesses with them that are not common to the area to which they are traveling.
What can they do to reduce the spread of germs?
Washing hands with soap and water for a minimum of 15 seconds is crucial; alcohol-based hand sanitizer is also effective against flu viruses and other bacteria. When coughing or sneezing, cover your mouth with tissue and discard immediately. Cough into a sleeve or elbow if a tissue is not available - unless you'll be holding an infant. You should always disinfect hands after coughing or sneezing. Have sick people stay away if possible.
What are the germy hot spots you notice at parties?
At some parties, many people shake hands or share utensils in a buffet setting. Sometimes a family member will stick a finger into a desert or test food while cooking using the same spoon for testing as cooking. A lot of older people (at-risk group) will kiss children (frequent carriers).
How can people prevent those or steer clear of them?
It is important to remember other infectious diseases besides flu, especially around the holidays, where food can be improperly handled. Many times food is allowed to sit out for long periods of times, and is not warmed properly. Be aware of the risk for foodborne illness if food sits out all day for family to "pick at."